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Kirk Douglas gives one of his finest, most sympathetic performances as tortured artist Vincent Van Gogh in this glossy, occasionally lumbering biographical drama. Director Vincente Minnelli (never a filmmaker known to delve too deeply into either lust or obsessions) manages to slip in shots of the real Vincent Van Gogh's paintings throughout, but the on-screen relationship between Van Gogh and Paul Gauguin is sadly under-developed (despite Anthony Quinn winning a Supporting Actor Oscar). Handsomely-produced package is worth-seeing mainly for Douglas' sterling work, but the weak final act fails to leave behind good will for the film, despite its obvious merits. **1/2 from ****
Initially the thought of Kirk Douglas playing Vincent van Gogh seems as unlikely as Al Pacino playing Arthur Scargill! And yet with a bravura performance of total immersion and commitment Douglas wins you over. Of course he seems too physical for the part and even the mandatory red hair and beard fails to convince the viewer of passable physical resemblance, unlike Anthony Quinn as Gaughin, but in a sustained start-to-finish portrayal of the downs and downs (there were very few ups) of the artist's life, you are quickly caught up in this tragic story of unrecognised tormented and ultimately doomed genius. It's almost as hard to believe that the suave purveyor of classic Hollywood musicals, Vincente Minelli, could pull off the directorial task with such aplomb, but with obvious love of the source material, countless opportunities to recreate the artist's masterpieces and most of all sympathy with the tortured artist, result in an accomplished end product filmed in glorious colour. Is it too obvious to draw a parallel between Van Gogh and Minelli's own flawed genius of a wife Judy Garland, similarly destined to die tragically young? Whether yes or no, this is serious Hollywood film - making at its grandest. The playing is very good, despite the jarring of Anglo-American accents - it's not long into the movie before Douglas exhorts Almatty Gahd - but the narrative stays true to the artist's life-story, quoting from Van Gogh's own letters, relayed in the third person by his devoted brother Theo, until his ultimate unhappy ending at his own hand. The sparks really fly too in the Quinn / Douglas scenes where Gaughin and Van Gogh attempt their short-lived joint home-making exercise where the artistic arguments between two temperamental individuals are convincingly and sensitively laid before the laymen viewers. Interesting to note the likes of actors Max Jaffe and Edward G Robinson in the list of donors of original works at the movie's conclusion.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
This movie is truly a treasure; any art lover should see it. The filmmakers painstakingly re-create interiors and scenes to make the picture come alive. I truly believe I'm a spectator in his life. The film does a good job of encompassing his entire artistic career, starting from his earliest days. They use actual dialog from his letters, and the close up shots of the artwork is really his. It is hard to say what was truly wrong with him, mentally or physically. There could be a number of conditions that we know more about now than we did back then. I think humanity had a stifling order of things, a 'code' of sorts in which everybody lived, and there was very little or no room for outbursts of any kind, even if you couldn't help it, which I believe was the case with Van Gogh. From his letters (and of course, paintings!) you can see he is a very intelligent person; he realizes things are getting rocky-he himself admits he has a problem. But he doesn't know what to do about it- and doctors at the time are hard pressed to help him, either. I also think the frustration of not having money, sometimes to cover the basics, relying on his brother for just about everything, not selling any paintings, not having his 'studio of the south' artist colony, and on top of all that, the lack of true love, led to depressions that, when you look at it, would be monumental things to try and overcome. Tensions with family didn't help, either. So all of this coupled with a possible physical problem, for example, seizures, something he actually has no control of, and that people really didn't understand, could give the illusion of instability. However I believe he was a person that was honestly trying to do the right thing, and living to the fullest all the time through his art. This movie captures all of these things I am trying to explain. All of the characters and scenes are beautifully acted; something I find interesting is that it was filmed in some locations where he lived and visited, also at a time really not so long after his death. It's been a while NOW but when the movie was filmed he had only been deceased approximately 60 years, give or take a couple of years. A real gem. Very inspiring. One of my all time favorite movies about my all time favorite artist. :)
This famous director quote of years ago says it all about the
distressing decline in movie "faces" over the years. As we Americans
become more and more the cookie-cutter products of the great melting
pot, we look all more and more alike...bland, banal and characterless
faces without nearly as much interesting differentiation as in earlier
days in this country, or in the rest of the world. In another century,
we may all look alike.
In the old days of pure ethnicity, the faces were very different and showed well the strong characteristics of those distinct ethnicities...the very thing that we have lost in this mooshed up genetic soup we shall call Melting Pot Man. Most of the great faces still remaining are in Europe and Asia, hopefully unchanged by the great equalizer...that ever present and always threatening melting pot. I hope the film industry will always try to bring more of those great and unmooshed faces to the screen.
Thank God for Kirk Douglas' face, one of those great and pure ethnic faces that cannot be forgotten from the very first moment, and forgotten he will never be due to his incomparable performance as Vincent van Gogh in Lust For Life. That Kirk did not win Best Actor at the Academy Awards for 1956 was the most egregious example of oversight in Academy history. He "was" van Gogh in this film.
Lust For Life is one of the best movies of the 50's, and Kirk's performance as van Gogh was one of the top 2 or 3 of that decade.
A classic not to be missed by film lovers and fine artists of any age.
Biopics are tricky things to get right. That is one of the reasons why
so many classic Hollywood versions of true stories are so liberal with
the facts storifying history in order to bring out the spirit or the
legend of the subject. There have also been more recent productions
which, in their devotion to historical accuracy, suck all the life out
of the picture. It is a rare thing indeed then to find a biopic that
sticks to the truth but also really brings us a vivid character in an
Lust for Life begins with Vincent's journey in mid-flow, with a brief episode in which he worked as a preacher in a dirty mining town. It is as if we are observing the man from a distance, and indeed director Vincente Minnelli actually keeps his camera well back from the subject for the first fifteen minutes or so. Van Gogh's talent for painting is not referenced verbally, but sketches gradually begin to appear in the background. It's a very tentative introduction to the man, but it gives us his character and background through example rather than direct statement, and rather than highlighting his turning to art shows it as an almost incidental extension of his way of life. Screenwriter Norman Corwin (who normally worked in radio) draws from Vincent's letters to his brother Theo for a gentle and unobtrusive narrative, and the production makes extensive use of actual locations and colour prints of van Gogh's paintings, all the better for his work to speak for itself.
Director Vincente Minnelli was himself a painter, albeit one of a rather different style to van Gogh, but his painterly instinct for space and colour helps very much in creating the harmonious look of Lust of Life. He was one of the few directors from this early stage of widescreen who knew what to do with the Cinemascope aspect ratio. His technique is to soften the width by composing in depth. Take set-ups like Mauve's studio or the little flat Vincent shares with Christine, in which the furniture and canvasses create many layers in depth, giving real definition to the space and making the wide shape of the screen seem more natural. Often the screen seems loosely divided into two parts, with foreground business on one side and a distant vanishing point on the other, and Minnelli uses this to create smaller frames for different actors on the screen or to highlight one person or another. This in turn minimises the need for cuts to opposing angles or close-ups, which tend to look awkward in Cinemascope.
In the lead role, Kirk Douglas not only bears a passable resemblance to van Gogh, he really immerses himself in the character to the extent that you forget the familiarity of the actor and see only the painter. Vincent may be the archetypal tortured artist but Douglas resists the temptation to become wild or hysterical, more often showing emotional turmoil in tense body language and silent screams. In lighter moments he displays a kind of boyish enthusiasm which really helps to make a likable character out of van Gogh. In contrast Anthony Quinn's supporting role as Paul Gauguin is exaggerated and theatrical where Douglas is subtle and realistic, but it highlights the difference between the two men and helps to make Quinn's short but crucial part in the story lively and memorable.
Above I feel what really makes Lust for Life work is that it understands it subject matter. There is a clear respect for van Gogh's work from writer, director and star, and an intention to allow the audience to share in this appreciation. The effort that has gone into comparing real scenes to finished paintings, and the dialogue that touches upon art theory show how his approach to painting dovetails into his highly emotional and philanthropic character. It is this that lends a sense of meaning and poignancy to the depiction of his tragic life.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
November 1888 is a month that has two events making it the most
notorious for bloodstained mutilations. On the night of 8-9 November
1888 Mary Jane Kelly, a prostitute in the Whitechapel area of London
was butchered in her small rooms in Miller's Court by Jack the Ripper,
leaving poor Mary's remains looking like she was being cut up for meat
like a cow or steer. About three or four days later, in Arles, France,
a desperately unhappy and mentally ill painter named Vincent Van Gogh,
angry at being deserted by a man he thought of as a soul-mate (artist
Paul Gauguin) sliced off the lower part of his left ear lobe, nearly
bleeding to death.
It's odd to think of those two events like that, juxtaposing the most hideous murder of the 19th Century with the most (unfortunately) celebrated action of a famous painter outside his activities as a painter, but there you are - history does have these crazy coincidences of time and space that we rarely are fully aware of. Oddly enough, given that a recent book on the Ripper linked that killer to the British post-impressionist Walter Sickert, it is odd that no comments on this coincidence of dates have arisen earlier.
LUST FOR LIFE was based on a best seller by Irving Stone on Van Gogh. Directed by Vincent Minelli, with his star from THE BAD AND THE BEAUTFUL Kirk Douglas as Van Gogh, it is one of the most colorful pictures of that period, and it remains one of the best film biographies. This is not just a fine biography of an artist (it's peer films are Korda's REMBRANDT with Charles Laughton, and Huston's MOULIN ROUGE about Toulouse Lautrec with Jose Ferrer), but a really first rate biography. For a change there is something to work with outside of the ability to paint. For Douglas's Van Gogh is driven to madness and suicide by a personality that craves affection, family and friends, but turns people off again and again.
From the start we see the real problem here. Talented Vincent is the son of a stern minister (Henry Daniell, in an all too brief part) in Holland. Daniell probably does what he should given his training, but he is a Calvinist, and that sects' dogma is quite restrictive and unforgiving in many respects. Vincent, as he tells his father, does believe in God, but in a loving God. Later Vincent realizes that he could have accommodated his father by attending church.
He also tries to marry the widow of a friend (Jeanette Sterke), but his passion runs into her faithful devotion to the memory of her husband, to the point that she tells her parents Vincent disgusted her with his revelation of love. Subsequently he tries to make a life with a prostitute with her son, but the poverty involved in his trying to learn his trade as a painter is too hard for her to accept, and she eventually breaks with him as well.
Gradually Vincent goes to Paris and lives with his closest friend and brother Theo (James Donald). Theo was the only one (despite occasional quarrels with Vincent) who supported him and tried to help, and (as a result) their letters have become part of world literature (the only painter I know whose writings as literature - as opposed to the notebooks of Da Vinci - are read for their passion). In Paris Van Gogh meets other impressionists giants (Pissaro, Seurat, Gauguin, Lautrec*). He finally decides to go to the southern village of Arles to paint, and is helped there by the local postman (Roulin - Niall MacInnis), Theo convinces Gauguin to join Vincent (he knows Vincent was one of the few people the boorish Paul did not insult - not realizing it was due to the brief time they knew each other). And the result was a disaster.
(*An actor supposedly plays Lautrec in this film, but I honestly did not see him. Interestingly enough, the friendship of Vincent and Henri pops up in MOULIN ROUGE, when Henri tells his mother about Vincent's pictures of sunflowers.)
Vincent hoped that if he and Paul worked side by side they could create the basis for an artist colony at Arles. The problem was temperament. Vincent desperately needed people to understand and love him. Gauguin was totally self-absorbed, and did not mind loneliness. Vincent embraced color and movement in his paintings. Gauguin was more ordered (this is not disparaging Paul Gauguin - it's just seeing his style of painting is not the same as seeing Vincent's in terms of viewer effect: Gauguin's colors are controlled but rich; Vincent's are like hurricane driven emotions.
When Paul finally has enough of Arles, its weather, its people, and Vincent, he decides to leave. Vincent chases him with his razor, but finds the unfazed Gauguin facing him down. Ashamed and in emotional agony Vincent returned to his room, and committed the self mutilation we remember.
The rest of the film follows his attempts, supported by Theo, to save his sanity - first under the care of an asylum headed by Lionel Jeffries, and then under a doctor who likes artists played by Everett Sloane. But, although some of his greatest work was produced from 1889 - 1890, in the end he commits suicide. A short life, but one rich in artistic endeavor.
Douglas gave his all in the role - possibly his best performance (though PATHS OF GLORY, THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL, and SPARTICUS equal it). He did not win the Oscar though nominated. Nor did Minelli get an Oscar for the beautiful film work he did. Anthony Quinn won his second best supporting actor Oscar as Gauguin, which if a short role was definitely memorable.
I saw this film when it first came out in 1956 and have seen in many times since. It had a profound effect then and still does. Indeed i may indeed call it my favorite film. it is my favorite because it deals with a true historical figure. and it does so with great sensitivity and finesse. this is truly spectacular considering this is a Hollywood bio. to me it remains unequaled in film bios of great artists or whatever. Douglas does a convincing job as the troubled van Gogh and the rest of the production is notable for its historical accuracy. its ambiance, mood and color. the believability of its many personages as they march across the screen. this is a true cinematic masterpiece, moving and deeply affecting and recreates the mood and life of the time with great precision and believability. the whole cast was superb as was of course Anthony Quinn as Gauguin.
....which is something Vincent never was. His art was alpha, but Vincent was damaged goods, with a bad brain. Kirk Douglas was a perfectly functioning biological machine, and that will always be evident. That is why Tim Roth did a better job of portraying Vincent; he was better able to portray Vincent: he has a sickly look to him....
When I first heard Hollywood had made a film about a great artist and Kirk Douglas(although a fine actor) was the lead I thought automatically of how poor it would be. But i was very wrong, I really consider this, if not a great film then certainly a very very good one. It pleasantly surprised me with its use of Van Gogh's artistry as somewhat the main character. Its a solid cast also, James Donald is quite interesting in the part of Theo(Vincents brother), Anthony Quinn as Paul Gauguin is very good(he won the Oscar for supporting actor)although his part is very small, and Kirk Douglas gives probably the best performance I've seen him give in a film. The soundtrack is also very powerful and Vicente Minnelli certainly puts in a good shift in this thoroughly enjoyable film.
Lust for life is a beautifully shot film and a reasonably accurate
portrayal of van gogh's troubled life! Kirk Douglas as the lead gives
arguably his best screen performance - only his performance as the
rebel slave Spartacus comes close i feel. But for me one of the things
that stands out most about this film - which no one else appears to
have commented on yet - is the exquisite score by the legendary film
score composer miklos rozsa! This is one of rozsa'a richest and lushest
scores - beautiful but at the same time haunting. If like me you're a
fan of rozsa and his mesmerising work you'll enjoy this movie just for
the score alone.
Rozsa is up there with morricone, barry and nyman for film score compositions, but sadly does not seem to have received the acclaim those 3 great film composers have.
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